We started the play test with a tutorial level. The thing that fascinated me about it was the pure fluidity of the controls; while the art of free-running known as parkour has been done before in various other titles, it has almost always been done either with little direct interaction from the player or with too many fiddly inputs and key combinations, almost always resulting in wonky and uncoordinated movements that long relegated the concept to the land of gimmickry. This isn't so with Titanfall - the controls are ridiculously tight and fluid, with each jump and twist feeling more visceral than ever before. It feels as if your character is an extension of you, moving smooth enough to grant fine control of motion and movement; running along walls, double jumping, and chaining air jumps with wall run acrobatics became almost second nature by the time I was done with the level. During one of my breaks, I joined in a conversation with Abbie Heppe, the Respawn Community Manager who I would later interview, and she put it best - "People need to get used to it I think, but once they get it, they love it. People say they try doing it in other games after they do it here!"
Titanfall currently has three confirmed game modes, and between them - Last Titan Standing, Hardpoint, and Attrition - the game is broad and varied in focus, feel, and gameplay. Hardpoint ended dramatically for my team. Our assured victory started its slow descent into defeat about three quarters through the match, when our best Titan pilot was caught in a pincer attack between two enemy Titans. Though his nuclear meltdown meant at least one of the enemy Titans was damaged beyond repair, the other Titan managed to keep ground control relatively secure, and we were slowly pushed pack to point Bravo, which we lost during a surge of ground activity. As the game ended, we were urged to get to the dropship in the distance, and as a large group, we started to sprint towards our salvation. It was only as the dropship exploded and the last salvos emptied that I realized we had evacuated on top of an apartment building; for the first time, the scope of the city hit me, and I realized just how large this world was.
"The world of Titanfall is one that's at the edges of the universe, where people journey to build lives, and it's more like getting to the west after traversing the Oregon Trail, but in space." Heppe explained. "We want people to see Titanfall and say, 'this is a bed, this a home'; we want it to be something that is very familiar, but at the same time, you're looking around and saying 'Oh my God, we're in space!'." The aim is certainly familiar - games like Battlefield and Rogue Squadron have long tried to make the world feel truly massive and intricate, to various rates of success. Titanfall has treated this backdrop almost as a fine art, sculpting each element with precision and allowing it to flow organically into the game.
It all works because it was designed to, because it was planned and executed with the entirety of the game in mind. When asked if these designs, choices, and structures in gameplay were as intentional as I suspected they were, Heppe confirmed my suspicions. "We try to explain to people the reason why we do things, and the reason things are the way they are; a lot of people who are asking for things haven't played the game, so us doing the beta and getting the game out there for people to play and figure these things out for themselves is super important." One of the many things I told Heppe during our conversations was that the game feels like it was designed by fans - it seems like every member of the Titanfall team is truly a fan of the game they are making, not just employees of a company that is happening to make a game. That's not to say the game is entirely uni-directional or single-faceted; the game is as varied as the gameplay, and in a funny turn, this variation was due to the level of attention dealt by the developers. "Originally, there was this work on...power armor and stuff that was not really titans, so there is definitely a lot of those things [that] came along as the game was developing towards a Titan-based game...there were a lot of concepts early on."
The interaction is not just one-sided, though; Heppe made it clear that the community had a significant role in development as well. "We are always listening to [the community]. It's very rare that somebody is saying something about Titanfall on the internet, on twitter, on everything, and we're not aware of it." Heppe smiles, obviously excited. "For us, we're building this foundation that is Titanfall, so there's a lot of things that we found interesting, or we incorporated, or added later, but this is the game we're making." Heppe made it clear, however, that the game had not fallen into the "vocal minority" trappings as so many other crowd-influenced games have. "We hear all of that stuff, and some of it is stuff for a future date, and some of it is stuff that would horribly unbalance the game if we did it. I think you'll remember when we were clarifying, 'yeah, this is a 6v6 game'; it's not that we haven't tested it 10v10 or higher numbers, it's that the game wasn't fun when we did that, and we need to make decisions that make it a fun game for everyone playing it.”
Of course, this experience is what makes a first-person shooter a success, and support for competitive play has been heavily balanced with the regular play experience. "We've tried to build a foundation for a fun game that is going to be awesome to play," Heppe continues, "We're not going to be shipping with all the same features to support [competitive play] that games that have been around for however many iterations, almost a decade I think for some of them, have, but I know that there's so much interest from the eSports community competitively and we’re definitely interested in what they have to say. We can't build the whole game for them; we have to build an awesome game and hope that they enjoy that and are interested in picking it up and playing it, and carrying on Titanfall for the next few months or years. I think at launch it's going to be interesting to hear their feedback." That feedback is of prime importance to Titanfall's success in certain parts of the world. Case in point, there was a lot of legitimate fears amongst Australian gamers that the lack of local Azure servers, the servers that will be hosting online games, would result in an unplayable hundreds-large millisecond ping. Heppe assuages some of those fears, stating "Microsoft is building Azure servers in Australia...and they'll be going online later this year. In the meantime, we have been testing the game in Australia to make sure they won't get super ridiculous milliseconds lag. [...] Obviously we don't want anyone to have a bad experience playing Titanfall, and I'm really excited that Microsoft is building data centers to support them; I know that there's a huge community of Australian gamers, and I know we had said at E3 last year that we thought they'd be there by now - they're not, but we're doing everything we can to make sure they get a good experience too." It's a common sentiment amongst EA and Respawn; the community is incredibly important, and they want the experience itself to be fun before anything else.
And as for the most common query for Respawn? "We get asked the number [of maps] all the time, and realistically, we want players to just go in and discover a lot of things about Titanfall for themselves, and the number of maps is one of those things. There are a lot, and they are very varied, even compared to what we're showing you today. Fractured has a lot of open spaces, and Angel City has a lot more vertical flanking and jumping off of buildings and sort of weaving in and out of these passageways. There are maps that are higher, there are maps that are totally different." Heppe laughs and smiles. "We haven't even shown one of my favorite ones yet!"